Soft Skills: The Secret to Sales Success

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Summary: Explore the underestimated power of soft skills to transform your sales approach. Discover why top sales teams prioritize soft skills like communication, empathy, and negotiation to boost sales performance.

For as long as there have been companies training their sellers, the hard skills have been heavily favored. Product knowledge. Technical expertise. Business processes. Understanding customer challenges.

Because of this, soft skills have taken a back seat. Even the term “soft skills” inherently comes across as… well… soft. And what does the word soft imply? Optional. Nice-to-have. Minimal impact. Weak. That’s an unfortunate characterization of selling skills that tend to separate top salespeople from the rest.

Companies’ investments in training is consistent with this characterization. According to the ATD 2023 State of Sales Training Report, just 21% of the training hours spent per salesperson were dedicated to selling skills. The other 79% was split between knowledge, strategy, and tools. The hard skills.

In practice, having worked with countless companies in a range of industries, that statistic isn’t reflecting a reality where every company has deemed that 21% is the necessary portion of skills training. Instead, many companies dedicate 0% and the average is balanced with others that recognize the importance of selling skills who are dedicating far more than 21%.

In this article, I’ll share eye-opening data points about companies who invested in soft skills training to dispel the common misconceptions about soft skills. We’ll also take a look at some of the most impactful selling skills that your team should be equipped with.

Hard Data from Soft Skill Development

So what happens when companies satisfy the requirements by providing the product, tools, and strategy training necessary, but then also add skills training? The impacts aren’t soft in the least.

 When studying the transactional data of several sales teams in different verticals who completed our Modern Sales Foundations program, top-line sales grew by 10-18%. This program teaches sales communication, value messaging, managing the sales process, discovery, and other skill-related topics.

Negotiation, often seen as a soft skill, shows up big in companies’ bottom-line profit numbers. Analyzing companies who completed our Negotiation Quotient program, we found that margins reliably increased by 120-180 basis points on manually overridden (discounted) pricing by sales reps. For these companies, that translates into 6-to-7 figures of annual profit improvement by teaching reps the skills to negotiate more effectively.

In both examples above, companies saw the real-dollar impact of soft skills training firsthand.

Critical Skills for Today’s Sales Situations

Let’s dig into some of the selling skills that matter today, which too often are considered “soft.” These tend to make the difference in success or failure, with the assumption that sales professionals possess all of the hard skills and knowledge needed.

Establishing Credibility

Today’s marketplace is filled with noise and it’s incredibly difficult to cut through it. A salesperson’s competition isn’t just sellers from direct competitors anymore; buyers are solving problems and choosing solutions on their own much more than they were even just ten years ago.

What cuts through the noise? Credibility. Establishing yourself as a credible and trustworthy resource to prospective buyers is the easiest way to gain more control over a buyer’s purchase decision and tilt it in your favor. So, if you have all of that technical and market expertise (the hard skills), it’s up to you to position yourself the right way to your buyers so that you can capitalize on it.

Professional Communication Skills

Sales communication has been on the decline for quite some time now, with sellers not focusing as much on it and not coming by it as naturally either. The polish that used to be ingrained into sales professionals has been replaced with lackadaisical language, disengaged demeanor, and a visible lack of interest in the buyer’s interests.

The good news is that there is a ton of room for sellers who care enough to excel in this area. Project a professional image, communicate clearly, demonstrate your interest in your buyers, dot every “i,” and cross every “t.” Those that do are way ahead of the general population of salespeople.

Authentic Discovery

Every salesperson knows they should be asking the right questions to understand buyers’ situations. Unfortunately, this often manifests itself as self-interested interrogation with the aim of piling up ammunition the seller can use to attack the buyer when it’s time for the pitch.

In contrast, top-performing sellers are authentically curious about buyers’ challenges and goals. They ask thoughtful and meaningful questions to gain an understanding of the buyer’s situation. They empathize instead of antagonize. It’s a productive conversation that ends up being valuable for the buyer, instead of an interrogation that has them on the defensive and bracing for what comes next.

Tailored Messaging

Buyers shouldn’t be left to connect all the dots on their own, but they’re often forced to do so. I personally can think of instances where I had a need for a particular solution and had to figure out the alignment and fit myself, because the salesperson working with me wasn’t getting it done.

Tying back to the discovery topic above, if you have a clear understanding of the buyer’s situation and goals, take advantage of that intel and adapt your communication and value messaging to be hyper-specific for this buyer’s use case. If you don’t, you’re not adding any value beyond what’s on the brochure. Consider what value drivers are important to a given buyer and focus your efforts on those.

Resolving Concerns

Practically every buyer who has ever purchased anything has had lingering concerns they’ve had to resolve before pulling the trigger. Will it work as intended? Is it worth the price? Will it play well with our other systems and processes?

A seller’s ability to empathize with buyers, clarify the concerns, and respond appropriately makes all the difference. Unfortunately, sellers have long been taught to treat these moments as barriers to their success. Overcome objections, right? Attempting to delegitimize or minimize buyer concerns is a formula for failure.

The simple fact is that buyers won’t purchase your solution if their concerns are still holding them back, so the skills needed to effectively resolve concerns are critical.

Negotiation

The last skill I want to highlight is negotiation. Arguably one of the most impactful soft skills, effective negotiation strategies help a seller to preserve price point and margin while maximizing buyer satisfaction. Once a buyer decides that your solution is the right one for them, it’s only logical that they’d want to be able to purchase it at the best terms they can.

Skilled negotiators have not only learned to tactfully manage situations where buyers attempt to haggle, but they also effectively reinforce value and navigate the deal to a point where it’s a positive, mutually beneficial outcome. A win-win.

Critical Skills for Today’s Sales Situations

If you’ve read this far, then the bottom line of this article is not lost on you. Soft skills matter just as much as the hard skills and knowledge that are requirements of a sales professional today. Our performance data studies have shown the significant impact of upskilling sales teams, and we’ve also heard first-hand observations of more effective sales execution.

Yes, product expertise, tools, and processes matter. But soft skills influence the outcomes of every customer conversation your sales team has. Maybe it’s time for “soft skills” to receive a rebranding?

Modern Sales Foundations

Use a buyer-centric approach to improve sales results.

What it takes for salespeople to deliver value has changed significantly as the modern buying process has evolved. Modern Sales Foundations™ (MSF) is an end-to-end sales training program that teaches sellers the buyer-centric strategies and approaches needed to excel in today’s marketplace.

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